If there’s one topic I’m asked about over all others, it’s along the lines of “Hasn’t evolution disproved creationism?”
The creation/evolution debate is one of the most intense, dramatised and media-driven apologetics debates I have ever come across. It is very different to most other debates in that rather than being characterised by scholars pitting new research, quotations and intellectual-sounding arguments and rebuttals against each other, the creation/evolution debate is commonly characterised by uncompromising extreme views, personal insults towards protagonists’ intelligences, and confident lay-person involvement rarely seen in academic discussion.
At the academic level, the debate has drawn some surprisingly extreme views by some prominent professionals. On one side, some biologists advocate evolution as a certainty, and to doubt or question it would be a mark of ignorance at best, and lunacy at worst. One of the most famous holders of this view is of course evolutionary biologist Prof. Richard Dawkins who summarised:
“If you actually read any book by a biologist about evolution, it’s hard to see how you could fail to be persuaded of it, the evidence is just absolutely fact. There is no doubt about it. It’s not a controversial issue. History is completely certain. It’s as certain as the fact that the earth and the other planets, orbit the sun.” (1)
In a New York Times article, Dawkins even went so far as to say:
“It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked)” (2)
This adamant certainty is rarely seen in any other field of biology, or indeed any other scientific discipline.
At the other extreme, some professionals from the same field loudly proclaim that the Theory of Evolution is irreconcilably false, and comparable to a religion founded on pitiful blind faith. One such view is held by biologist Dr. Kent Hovind who, in an highly provocative lecture titled “100 Reasons Why Evolution is Stupid” declared:
“My position: there is no scientific evidence to support the idea (of macroevolution)… All “evidence” shown to kids in public schools as “evidence” for evolution has been proven wrong… Your kids are being lied to.” (3)
Again, this kind of public slamming of a scientific theory is rarely seen in scientific academia today.
At the lay level, it never ceases to amaze me how much heated and opinionated input non-biologists are willing to throw into this debate. A quick scroll through the Youtube comments underneath the two videos above shows that some laypeople are willing to hail Dawkins and Hovid as heroes for their stances on evolution, while others are equally prepared to slam them as ignorant fools. Again, I know of no other scientific theory or field that has generated such intensely polarised lay-thought.
Why the Fuss?
Of course, evolution is not simply another scientific theory. It seems to me that the polarised academic schools of thought, and intense lay debate largely stems from the perception some have that the Theory of Evolution has penetrated (or is trying to penetrate) a totally different field- the field of Theology. I do not think we can be in any doubt that Dawkins’ and Hovid’s vocalism on evolution is in part fuelled by their theological standings: Hovid self-identifying as a Christian, and Dawkins as an atheist.
At the generic level, some view the Theory of Evolution as a direct threat to the belief in a creator of the world. Both in the public sphere and private discussions it is apparent that some atheists, who advocate the dismantling of all forms of religious beliefs, have tried to weaponise the Theory of Evolution, by quoting is as evidence against the existence of God. Some religious people have also seen the theory as a significant threat to their beliefs, and thus take every possible opportunity to rubbish or cast doubt over the theory.
At the specific level, there also exists the proposition that the Theory of Evolution may contradict, and thus throw into question, the biblical creation account according to Genesis 1-2. This has led to specifically Christian theologians being drawn into this debate, and often being the most vocal in their criticism of the Theory of Evolution.
My intention with this blog post is not to give an extensive critical evaluation of the nuanced scientific strengths and short-comings of the Theory of Evolution, assessment of 150 years worth of data collection, and suggested further research for the entire field of evolutionary biology. Even if this was a possible task in terms of time, I would not feel sufficiently qualified to speak with any significant authority. However, what I would like to do is look at the theological implications of the Theory of Evolution, and investigate whether any of the accepted positions biologists take on evolution seriously undermine the belief in the God of Christianity. As a biologist, I do have my own views about where the Theory of Evolution is strong, and where it may be flawed. However, I do not intend to write about that here. Rather, I’d like to try to answer the bigger question of “Is The Theory of Evolution compatible with Christian Theology?” (regardless of the theory’s scientific strength).
Has Evolution Gotten Rid of the Need for a Creator?
The argument usually goes something like this: human beings used to believe that lightning was caused by God’s anger, disease was caused by God’s judgement on bad behaviour, and biodiversity was caused by God’s creativity. However, now we know that lightning is caused by electron flow, disease is caused by microorganism activity, and biodiversity is caused by evolution. The more science discovers, the less we need God as an explanation. Therefore, why bother believing in God at all?
This is a classic argument, and is a short version of what Dawkins’ declares to be the “central argument” of his religion-slamming book The God Delusion (4).
However, when aimed at a Christian, this argument commits a straw-man fallacy. That is to say, the argument attacks a position that Christians do not hold- namely, the belief in the “god of the gaps”.
The “god of the gaps” principle states that believers insert god as an explanation for any observation science cannot explain. As science progresses, it can explain more and more, and thus the need for god as an explanation becomes less and less. However, this principle is based on the fundamental assumption that science and god are two contradictory explanations for what we observe, and thus an explanation of an observation must either be science or god (never both).
However, I think this assumption is patently false for one simple reason: I believe that science and God are not two contradictory explanations of our observations. Rather, they are two different levels of explanations. Let me explain with an analogy.
Imagine I took you out to a busy road, point to a car as it drove by, and asked you the question: “what makes the car move?” I give you two options: (a) “the thermodynamics of the internal combustion engine” (b) “the driver”. How would you answer?
You clearly do not need a science degree to know that answer is “both”. “Thermodynamics” and “driver” are two different explanations for our observation (the car moves). However, these are not two contradictory explanations; they are two different levels of explanations. The thermodynamics is the mechanism by which the car moves, while the driver is the agent who works through the mechanisms to accomplish his will. These two levels of explanation, i.e. mechanism and agent, can be equally applied to the god of the gaps argument. Science studies mechanism explanations of what we observe around us. I believe that God is the agent who works through the mechanisms to accomplish his will. Science and theology study two levels of explanations, not two contradictory ones.
So the notion that science is decreasing the need for God as an explanation is a fundamentally flawed one. The argument that as science progresses, the less we need God, is the equivalent of saying “if we learn enough about the thermodynamics of the internal combustion engine of the car, we’ll eventually get rid of the need for a driver!”
So, has evolution gotten rid of the need for a creator? I would argue it has not. Evolution is a proposed mechanism explanation for our observation of biodiversity. God remains the agent explanation, who would be perfectly at liberty to work through the mechanism of evolution to create biodiversity. In a nutshell- God could use evolution if he wanted to!
Does Evolution Contradict God’s Perfection?
The next question would be, does evolution contradict any of the specific characteristics of God that Christians hold to be true? Before I get onto the accounts of Genesis, it is worth having a look at one argument that evolution is incompatible with specifically the God of the bible.
Evolution is a wasteful and time inefficient mechanism, which relies on deaths of organisms that are not competitively advantageously equipped, as well as large time periods to allow advantageous mutations to occur by random chance. Some argue that this runs contradictory to the view that a creator God is perfect and thus would create life in a perfect, efficient and non-wasteful way.
However, such advocates of this argument fail to take into consideration that inefficiency and wastefulness are only problems for beings with either limited time or limited resources (or both). However, the Christian God is one who is not limited by time or resources, so would be perfectly able to create life without needing to be efficient or economical with resources. (5)
Does Evolution Contradict Genesis?
This question is, in my experience, where the biggest and most intense controversy lies. Many people believe that there are direct contradictions between the explanations of biodiversity given by the Theory of Evolution, and those given by the account in Genesis 1-2. From my research these often quoted contradictions can be grouped into three main issues:
3. Uniqueness of Humans
On superficial reading, Genesis 1 describes an account of the creation of humans and all types of animals over a time span of 6 “days”. However, this contradicts the Theory of Evolution, which states that biodiversity developed gradually over a time period of c. 5 billion years, and that humans came into existence around 200,000 years ago.
According to the Theory of Evolution, speciation (the process by which different species develop) is a slow, gradual and continuous process, as random mutations produce increasingly divergent organisms. Evolution hinges on the principle that every organism that has ever lived has a common unicellular ancestor, the biodiversity is due to the continuous process of gradual accumulations of mutations.
However, Genesis 1 seems to imply a discrete, rather than continuous, process that produced speciation. In Genesis 1: 21 and 25, the writer uses the phrase: God created animals “each according to its kind”, which seems to imply that species were created as distinct groupings, thus contradicting the continuous process of evolution.
3. Uniqueness of Humans
According to the Theory of Evolution human beings are simply one of the animals produced by mutations and natural selection, and that we are closely related to apes on the phylogenic tree. However, Genesis 2 gives are very different (and quite bizzare) account of how humans were created. In Genesis 2:7, we read “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (NIV) This implies a distinct process by which human beings were create, that seems to run contradictory to the Theory of Evolution.
Does Evolution Contradict Genesis?
As you can probably guess from my chosen academic field and unashamed Christian faith, my answer would be “no”. In my opinion, there are actually several ways in which the above three apparent contradictions can be reconciled.
In my experience, there are two credible but very different stances Christians can take with respect to the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2, and both positions are compatible with the Theory of Evolution. The two positions are the metaphorical view and the literal view.
1. Metaphorical View
This is the view held by many esteemed scientists and theologians, perhaps most prominent of which is Prof. Alistair McGrath (Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University). In an interview with DTS Magazine, McGrath laid out his view:
“In recent years, many Christians have come to think that only a literal reading of Genesis does justice to the text…In the earlier period of the Christian church…people didn’t read Genesis in that way. I think we have more freedom about how we interpret these passages than some might think….Certainly, the book of Genesis is saying that we all come from the same stock… The text emphasizes the corporate identity of humanity. We’re all in the same boat. That’s a very important biblical insight. We’re all in the same mess, and we need someone to get us out of this mess, and that’s why salvation is such good news.” (6)
McGrath, like many other Christians, sees Genesis 1 and 2 as metaphorical pieces of literature, which aim to convey theological meaning, rather than a scientific, systematic, literal description of creation.
I think a strong case can be made that this is how the writer intended the chapters to be read. Although prose, the text is lyrical, and exhibits poetic elements. For example, in chapter 1, the 6 creation days can be split into 2 sets. The first three days describe the creation of the spaces of sky, sea and land. The second three days describe the respective filling of the sky, sea and land with celestial bodies, fish and land animals. This holistic structure seems to indicate an element of poetic structure, rather than a chronological account of events.
Throughout Genesis 1, we also read the rhythmically repeated lines “and God said”, “it was good”, and “and there was morning, and there was evening”, similarly indicating a carefully crafted poetic style.
It may be worth mentioning that the metaphorical view often comes under attack by those who say that Christians are simply re-interpreting scripture when inconveniences arise. However, it is important to remember that the metaphorical view of Genesis dates back to the earliest Christian church. St Augustine of Hippo, who was a 4th Century Church father explained that he “did not dare expound in their literal meaning such great mysteries of the natural order, that is to say, how what is said there (Genesis 1) can be taken as strictly historical” (7). St Augustine expounded the metaphorical view c. 1500 years before Charles Darwin was born!
The metaphorical view of Genesis 1-2 can thus be easily be reconciled with the Theory of Evolution, simply because the two speak of separate issues. This view holds that Genesis 1 and 2 do not give a literal, systematic, scientific description of the way biodiversity was created, and so when the Theory of Evolution tries to do so, there is nothing to contradict! In other words, Genesis unpacks the meaning of the creation account, and leaves modern science to work out the literal mechanisms and processes.
2. Literal View
The literal view of Genesis 1-2 is, in my opinion, equally valid as an interpretation of the text, and also equally reconcilable with the Theory of Evolution (although this is slightly more complicated!)
The literal view states that Genesis 1-2 are real and accurate accounts of actual events that took place, and if we had the resources, could we could investigate them scientifically. In order to be credible, Genesis 1-2 would need to match up with the scientific evidence regarding the beginning of the world, given both are aiming to make literal, accurate deductions. The literal view of Genesis 1-2 is held by a large number of scientists, including Prof. John Lennox (Professor of Pure Mathematics, Oxford University), who has written an entire book on the matter (8).
As mentioned above, there appears to me to be three main points of apparent contradiction between Genesis 1-2 and the Theory of Evolution: timings, speciation and uniqueness of humans. However, on closer reading of Genesis, and more detailed investigation of the evidence behind the Theory of Evolution, I strongly believe that all three of these contradictions can be satisfactorily reconciled.
On superficial reading, Genesis 1 seems to indicate that there was a time span of 6 days between the creation of the planet Earth, and the arrival of human beings and all the other species. However, this wholly contradicts the Theory of Evolution which requires many millions of years for the diversity of species we observe to have evolved.
However, on closer reading, I think one can conclude that the writer of Genesis did not intend the account of seven days to be read as seven, consecutive, 24 hour periods. Rather, I think that the writer uses the word “day” (in Hebrew “yom”) to indicate an unspecified time period which may be 24 hours, or may be much longer. There are several reasons why I think this; the list is long, but I’ll give a few of them.
(a) The word “yom” (day) is used throughout Genesis 1-2 to mean at least three different definitions. The very first mention of the word “day” in the passage (and indeed the bible), is Genesis 1:5 where we read “God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”” (NIV) This use of the word “day” refers to “daylight hours”, which is not 24 hours; it is roughly 12 hours, if you are standing on the equator. Reading on, from verses 5-31, we get to the controversial seven “days” of creation. But then in Genesis 2:4, we see a third use of the word day, where the verse reads “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (KJV). Chapter 2 uses the word “day” to describe the era of the entire creation account. It is sort of the same use as the idiomatic expression “back in my day”, when referring to the era of one’s childhood. I think that these clearly different definitions of the word “day” mean it would be unfair to force the strict 24 hour definition on the seven days of creation in Genesis 1:5-31
(b) At time of writing, people obviously were not aware that the 24 hour day was caused by the rotation of the Earth about its axis. Rather, people defined the 24 hours days as “sunrise to sunrise” or “sunset to sunset”. However, according to Genesis 1, the sun was created on day 4, meaning the first 3 “days” could not have been the regular 24 hour periods that we know of as the standard “day”.
(c) The accounts of each creation “day” all end with the sentence “And there was evening, and there was morning—the [n]th day” (NIV), with one notable exception- day 7. The seventh day does not have a clear ending like the others, which seems to indicate that the seventh day is temporally different to the other six. Some hypothesise that the seventh day ended at the fall, while others argue that is is still going on today. Whatever the exact meaning, the reading of the seventh day implies a degree of temporal flexibility of the seven creation “days”.
There are other reasons that I could add, but in the interest of keeping this (already very long) article within readable length, I’ll stop and summarise here, by saying that on closer analysis of the text Genesis 1-2, the seven creation “days” can be interpretted as seven unspecified time periods, which could be millions or even billions of years. Therefore, on the time aspect, Genesis can be reconciled with the timeline of evolution.
This is a very interesting apparent contradiction between Genesis and evolution, and stems (largely) from Genesis 1:21,25 and the use of the phrase “each according to its kind”. Some have interpretted that this means God created all the species individually, thus allowing natural selection within species, but not evolution of one species into another. However, in recent years, strong evidence from both ecology and molecular biology has indicated that gradual speciation over time appears to take place (9). This seems to contradict the creation account of Genesis.
However, this contradiction is based on a mistaken interpretation of Genesis 1. The definition of “species” has changed somewhat over the past 400 years; the first biologist to define the word was John Ray in 1686 (10). Therefore, at the time of writing of Genesis, the concept of “species” was obviously non-existent. Thus the postulation that Genesis 1 indicates that God created all the individual “species” is clearly false. The word used in Genesis 1 is “kind”, not “species”, and one can logically deduce that “kind” refers to a grouping of organisms based on observable physical characteristics (as opposed to the genomic techniques we use to group species today). These “kind” groups are clearly much broader than “species groups; one “kind” must contain many “species”.
So Genesis 1 does not indicate that all the species were created individually, it simply states that an unspecified number of organisms were created, from which the species developed (or “evolved”). However, there is still an issue in that the Theory of Evolution states that all organisms have a single common ancestor. However, Genesis 1, at base, states that all organisms have between them, a couple of common ancestors, rather that just one.
However, from my research, it seems to me that the biological evidence for speciation can match up equally with the two hypotheses (single or multiple ancestors). I would argue that the jury is out on this one, and that evolution from multiple ancestors is as reasonable and evidence-based as evolution from a single common ancestor.
Uniqueness of Humans
In amongst all the above questions and debates, in my experience, this is the most controversial of them all. The Theory of Evolution states that we are simply one of a phyolgenic tree of species, no more “special” (whatever that means) than any other. However, Christianity believes almost exactly the opposite- that human beings are a “special creation”, set apart from all the other animals. Almost all of Genesis chapter 2 is spent describing how God made human beings in a separate and distinct process from the creation of all the other animals.
However, this entire controversy boils down to the simple question “what is human?”. As it turns out, this is a challenging question for both Christian theologians and evolutionary biologists.
Biology defines humans (homo sapiens) by genomic composition, which codes for a distinct set of physical characteristics. However, the Christian definition of “human” uses an entirely different set of criteria. Genesis 1-2 describes two distinct characteristics that define humans as different from other animals:
1. Genesis 1:26-27 says:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (NIV)
The description “made in God’s image” is the first defining characteristics of a human being, given by Genesis. A detailed unpacking of what this phrase means is beyond the remit of this article. However, an important point needs to be made with respect to the evolution question; at the point of creation, the bible implies that God did not have a physical form (e.g. John 1:1-14). Therefore, being “made in the God’s image” is not a physical description of humans. Rather, it is a description of human being’s super-physical (some say “spiritual”) attributes that make us distinct from animals.
2. Genesis 2:7 says:
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
This bizarre account describes the other defining characteristic of humans according to Genesis- God “breathed into his nostrils”. The Hebrew word from “breath” (“rauch”) is the same the word for “spirit”, and thus the description seems to indicate God gave the man a spirit to indwell his physical body. The notion that we are both physical and spiritual beings is one which is important in Christian doctrine; for example, Romans 8:16 describes how the Holy Spirit interacts which our “human” spirit. This again, indicates that Genesis defines human beings by their spiritual, not physical, characteristics.
Therefore, in my mind, this entire question is based on a misunderstanding of how theologians and biologists define “humans”. Genesis states that humans are a “special creation” in their spiritual attributes (they resemble God’s spiritual nature in some way, and have an indwelling spirit), while evolution states that humans are not special in their physical nature compared with the physical nature of other animals. The two views don’t contradict because they refer to two different components of human beings. Therefore, the controversy disappears.
There is much more I could say about this huge topic of creation vs. evolution, and no doubt there are still many questions I haven’t even come close to answering. But hopefully I have laid down and backed up my view on this whole debate. I believe that the Theory of Evolution does not get rid of the need of a creator and does not throw into question God’s perfection. And with respect to Genesis 1 and 2, there are two interpretations of the passage that are, in my view, totally acceptable (the metaphorical and literal views), and both are compatible with the Theory of Evolution.
I have reserved comment on what I think about the scientific merit of the Theory of Evolution, and I have also purposefully not declared which view of Genesis 1 and 2 I believe to be true. The reason for that is because I don’t really think it is important which view of Genesis one holds. The importance lies in whether there is a creator behind life, and who or what that creator is. And for that, I’ll refer you to my other blog posts! :p
1. Richard Dawkins, interview with CNN. video can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6iss-xq2-E
2. Richard Dawkins, Put Your Money on Evolution, New York Times, 9th April 1999, p. 35
3. Kent Hovid, 100 Reasons Why Evolution is Stupid. video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwlU4rkzzTw
4. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Transworld Publishers, 2006), 187-188
5. Summary of argument by William Lane Craig, debate with Austin Dacey. video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0-5up-LfHM
6. Full article can be found at http://www.dts.edu/read/an-interview-with-alister-mcgraith-mcgill-jenny/
7. Augustine 2010, I.18
8. John Lennox, Seven Days That Divide The World, (Zondervan, 2011)
9. A nice review article of the evidence for speciation: Schluter, Dolph. “Evidence for ecological speciation and its alternative.”Science 323.5915 (2009): 737-741.
10. Historia plantarum generalis, in the volume published in 1686, Tome I, Libr. I, Chap. XX, p. 40